Autumn has traditionally been represented by the gourd for some time, with pumpkins serving as a centerpiece on tables and mantels. For Thanksgiving we like having bright, orange pumpkins decorating our homes and offices, but for Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve, or Dia de los Muertos) we like to chop the tops off, rip the cuts out, and cut designs into our pumpkins.
With so much history behind the tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns, most people go about the process the same way as they have for decades.
According to Wikipedia:
A jack-o’-lantern (sometimes also spelled Jack O’Lantern) is typically a carved pumpkin. It is associated chiefly with the holiday Halloween, and was named after the phenomenon of strange light flickering over peat bogs, called ignis fatuus or jack-o’-lantern. In a jack-o’-lantern, typically the top is cut off, and the inside flesh then scooped out; an image, usually a monstrous face, is carved onto the outside surface, and the lid replaced. At night a light (commonly a candle, although in recent years candles have fallen out of favor and are now considered unsafe because of the potential for fires) is placed inside to illuminate the effect. The term is not particularly common outside North America, although the practice of carving lanterns for Halloween is.
For 150 years, the methods for creating and lighting Jack O’Lanterns remained basically the same: cut a hole in the top, scoop out the seeds and guts, scrape the sides, cut a scary looking face, and light with a candle.
Recently, the art and science of pumpkin carving has come to the forefront of Halloween technology.
Carving the gourd
Most of the time, a hole is carved in the top of the pumpkin, large enough to accommodate a hand. Some approaches advise removing a circle from the backside of the pumpkin, but this leads to complications trying to cover the hole (since gravity is working against you).
Cut a hole in the top, either on- or off-center from the stem, using a cut beveling inward (to keep the “lid” from falling into the hole). It’s advised that you cut an irregular pattern or a “notch/key” to help align the lid when you replace it. Once cut off, scrape it to about an inch or so in thickness.
Next, pull out all the “guts” and seeds, you can save these for roasting later.
Last, scrape down the interior so it’s anywhere from 1/4-inch to 1-inch thickness, depending on what kind of carving technique you’re going to use.
Which brings us to…
Carving your design
In years past most Jack O Lanterns were cut with a sharp knife, and in very straight, angled patterns (triangles in particular).
Recently new cutting, shaping, and shaving tools have been introduced to the general public. The biggest advances here have been in safety and fineness of control.
Modern pumpkin carving knives are nothing more than dull saws. These slice through even the thickest skins with ease, and are typically kid-friendly. Sizes vary so you can make large cuts, or very fine cuts and tight angles. These “saws” allow carvers to make more fluid cuts and designs… Eyes can finally be round instead of triangular!
Lately, expert carvers have been switching from cutting entirely through the shell to just scraping off the exterior (orange) skin. This makes the Jack-o-lantern last a lot longer, reduces the likelihood of your design “curling” and distorting when it starts to dry out, and can be much more three-dimensional by varying the thickness of the carved exterior – which results in darker and lighter sections when lit. Very cool… which is a good segue to…
Some people think open flames are dangerous. I’m not one of them. I think fire is a tool and if you use it you need to take certain safety precautions. But, the “experts” think you’re an idiot and will burn the entire world if you strike a match… okay, okay, to cover my own patoot, fire can be dangerous, don’t let kids play with it, don’t leave it unattended, be safe, use logic and common sense, when in doubt don’t use fire… and get yourself a babysitter or check yourself into a clinic.
When using candles wider is better. The wider the candle, the longer it will burn. Also, the more likely it is that it won’t fall over and catch the pumpkin on fire.
Cut a recess into the bottom of the pumpkin just wide enough to hold the base of the candle and deep enough to keep it from tipping. The bottom of the hole should keep the candle plumb (even if the bottom of the pumpkin is not level). Make sure you do not puncture the bottom of the pumpkin.
Place your candle into this hole, cut it to height (if needed) and light it. Replace the lid and let the candle burn for minutes. The candle will smoke and scorch the area directly above it. Cut a chimney hole as big as your candle is around (or as big as around as its wax pool is). This will allow the heat from the candle to escape and keep your pumpkin from drying out – making it last longer and reducing the likelihood that it will catch fire.
Make sure your pumpkin cannot be easily tipped over.
If you opt for electrical lighting, LED is your best option. Modern LED lights are bright enough to light most pumpkins when used with a diffuser or reflector (even the back of a pumpkin can serve as a good reflector).
Save a dozen or so of the best looking seeds you can, lay them on a paper towel, and allow them to air dry. These will grow your pumpkins for next year.
Take the rest of the seeds, coated in as much gooey pumpkin guts as possible, lightly salt, and roast for 15-20 minutes. Flip, and back until dry. Eat shell and all. Yummy!
Please share your tips, templates, tricks, and photos!
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